Irish Students Killed in Berkeley Balcony Collapse Were on J-1 Visas

About 170,000 of the visas allowing foreign college students to work in the United States are awarded each year.

Five of the Irish college students who died when a fifth-floor balcony collapsed were part of a popular cultural exchange program allowing foreign students to work and travel in the United States.

The U.S. government's J-1 Summer Work Travel program brings 100,000 college students to this country every year, with many finding jobs at resorts, summer camps and other attractions.

Here's a look at the program:


The program – created under the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961 – allows foreign college students to spend up to four months living and working in the U.S. It was meant to foster cultural understanding and has become a booming, multimillion-dollar international business. Participation has grown from about 20,000 in 1996 to a peak of more than 150,000 in 2008.


The State Department has 41 designated sponsors that help students arrange visas and find jobs and housing. Students pay thousands of dollars to participate in the program. The San Francisco Bay Area is especially popular with Irish students, many of whom work at Fisherman's Wharf and other tourist sites.

A fourth-floor apartment building balcony collapsed onto the sidewalk just blocks from the University of California, Berkeley campus early Tuesday, killing six young people celebrating a 21st birthday and leaving seven other people injured, police said.


A 2010 investigation by The Associated Press found that many students came to the U.S. only to learn the jobs they were promised didn't exist. Some had to share beds in crowded houses or filthy apartments. Following the AP's investigation, the State Department tightened its rules governing participating businesses.


In the past, unscrupulous third-party brokers working for sponsors have taken advantage of students, cramming them into tiny, roach-infested apartments while charging exorbitant rent.

Sponsors now take a more active role with housing. They have to keep records on where the students are living and stay in contact with them during their four-month stay. There's currently no requirement for sponsors to vet the housing for the program's participants, said Susan Pittman, a spokesman for the State Department. Still, she insists the department monitors the program, adding that last year they made 717 unannounced visits to sponsors and employers.

NBC Bay Area Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski examines the building in the fatal Berkeley balcony collapse.
Copyright AP - Associated Press
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